San Francisco’s Spectacular Hypocrisy

Will voters restore “one of Nature’s rarest and most precious mountain mansions”?

 Hetch Hetchy Valley as it appeared before it was transformed into a reservoir, in Yosemite National Park, California
Hetch Hetchy Valley as it appeared before it was transformed into a reservoir, in Yosemite National Park, California

Photo by Isaiah West Taber/Wikimedia Commons.

In San Francisco, concern for the environment is a dearly held civic virtue. The Sierra Club was founded here 120 years ago; San Francisco’s mayor issued the first Earth Day proclamation in 1970; and, more recently, San Franciscans have embraced everything from organic food and compostable plastics to hybrid cars and bike lanes. But the green city has a dark secret.

For the better part of a century, San Francisco has stored its tap water 180 miles away, in the heart of Yosemite National Park. The Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which holds 117 billion gallons of water behind a 312-foot dam, drowned a glacial valley that early conservationist John Muir described as “one of Nature’s rarest and most precious mountain mansions.” The reservoir has been a sore spot with environmentalists for decades.

On Election Day, the city will vote on whether to take the first step toward draining Hetch Hetchy and restoring the valley. A controversial ballot initiative introduced by a single-issue spin-off of the Sierra Club, called Restore Hetch Hetchy, would force the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to spend $8 million—less than 1 percent of the agency’s annual budget—to study alternatives to the city’s current water system. The ultimate goal is a second ballot initiative, in 2016, that would let voters decide whether to drain the reservoir. In a state as arid as California, giving up water storage is a perilous proposition, but polling earlier this year showed the measure has an even chance among San Francisco voters.

City leaders are a different story.

Local officials are usually open to ambitious, well-intentioned proposals. This is the city, after all, that is fighting childhood obesity by banning Happy Meal toys. San Francisco forbids plastic bags at retail stores; it has tried to place cancer warnings on cellphones; and it has had its own local version of universal health care since 2007. Public nudity is considered a form of free expression.

But considering an alternative to the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir seems to be too outrageous for San Francisco. City Hall, local representatives, business groups, and newspapers have lined up against the proposal, calling it “stupid” and a costly boondoggle. They warn that draining Hetch Hetchy could destroy the Bay Area as we know it.

“As insane as this is, it is, in fact, insane,” sputtered the usually mild-mannered Mayor Ed Lee when the initiative was announced.

But the idea is not crazy. And refusing to discuss it shows a stubborn lack of foresight.

Muir and other early conservationists considered the Hetch Hetchy Valley the “exact counterpart” of the majestic Yosemite Valley, which is the site of El Capitan and Half Dome. But the Hetch Hetchy Valley’s high granite walls made it an attractive spot for a reservoir. San Francisco lobbied Congress for permission to dam the valley for years and finally succeeded in 1913—in part by capitalizing on sympathy for victims of the 1906 earthquake. Along with rights to the water, the city won a perpetual lease on the land. The decision was controversial then—200 newspapers around the country published screeds against it—but the O’Shaughnessy Dam went up across the Tuolumne River anyway, and the first water was delivered in 1934. Today, Hetch Hetchy is the largest of San Francisco’s eight reservoirs, storing water for the city and other municipalities across the Bay Area.

The gravity-powered system that carries Tuolomne River water from Hetch Hetchy to San Francisco, across two-thirds the width of the state, is a marvel of engineering. But it’s also an artifact of the early 20th century, an era when taming nature was a national obsession and rapidly growing California municipalities fought over water resources. Los Angeles took its desperate hunt for water all the way to the Owens Valley, more than 200 miles away, famously using subterfuge to acquire water rights from hapless farmers. By setting its sights on Hetch Hetchy, San Francisco was able to remain above such sordid tactics. But over the years, the smug city has come to see the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir not just as a savvy acquisition but as a “birthright,” to quote former mayor Dianne Feinstein.

To believe that water imported from the Sierra Nevada will always be available and plentiful for coastal cities is wishful thinking. That’s a lesson Los Angeles learned when the courts and the state, in an effort to stave off environmental damage, ordered it to cut back on the water it drew from Owens Valley and the Eastern Sierra. Since the 1990s, Los Angeles has bought more water from state and regional water projects (which have their own problems), but it has also developed local sources of water, including recycling and groundwater. In the past decade, the city’s new approach to water has allowed Mono Lake, a unique ecosystem that was being drained, to recover from near ecological collapse. (Until recently, one of the most popular bumper stickers in San Francisco, always eager to scold its less ecologically correct rival to the south, said “Save Mono Lake.”)

While Los Angeles still uses far more water per capita than San Francisco, the southern city’s changing approach to water is an example of reforms that are happening across California. The arid state, like the rest of the Western United States, will likely get drier as global climate change takes effect. It is also becoming more and more crowded—the population is expected to surge to as high as 48 million by 2020. To prepare for these changes, and to address the iniquities of previous generations, water agencies across the state are beginning to work together on projects to conserve and recycle water, or store water from wet years in underground aquifers to use later. They are discussing ecosystem restoration and better water management in the troubled Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, just across the bay from San Francisco. The fighting is not over, and California must still confront a host of water-related challenges, but it is moving away from the idea that water resources must be jealously guarded, or that any water source is a birthright. Other municipalities have been re-examining plumbing systems that date back to the early 20th century—why should San Francisco, with its sweet, 100-year-old deal, be immune?

It’s true that most water in California goes toward agriculture, and San Francisco, which is too chilly for swimming pools and too densely populated for lawns, has a per-capita water usage rate half that of other large cities (the rate is higher among San Francisco’s neighbors, which purchase water from the city). San Francisco has proven good at water conservation, and consistent with the goals laid out by the Restore Hetch Hetchy ballot initiative, the Public Utilities Commission has begun small-scale groundwater and recycling programs. But the agency, nearing completion of $4.6 billion in infrastructure improvements, has spent far more on shoring up the current system than on adapting it to the 21st century.

The Public Utilities Commission, which recently moved, with much fanfare, into a $200 million “green” office building downtown, is taking more credit for modernizing its water system than it deserves. The city’s recycling efforts are essentially cosmetic—watering golf courses and parks. Rain-water capture in San Francisco is limited to home rain barrels; the rest of the storm runoff during the rainy season is treated as sewage. And residents have proven resistant to the idea of groundwater, because the Public Utilities Commission has spent years promoting the “delicious,” pristine snowmelt brought to them by the Hetch Hetchy system.

Studies by academics, environmentalists, the federal government, and the state have shown that draining the reservoir and restoring the Hetch Hetchy Valley is feasible, if expensive. At present, the city and its water customers get 85 percent of their water from the Sierra Nevada via the Tuolumne River (not all of which comes from the Hetch Hetchy reservoir), and most of the rest from local runoff. If San Francisco could no longer draw on Hetch Hetchy water, the city could still retain rights to Tuolumne River water and would lose only an estimated one-fifth of its water in one year out of five. Perhaps the city and its water customers are not prepared to make that sacrifice now, or to spend the billions it could take to compensate for the lost water, but why shouldn’t they—if only as a contingency plan—figure out alternatives to storing water in Hetch Hetchy?

By refusing to even discuss the ballot initiative, city leaders are closing their eyes to a problem that could come to a head in the next few decades. They are refusing to work with the rest of California to develop a sustainable plan to keep the taps running and irrigation flowing across the most populous state in the union. And they are clinging to a water system that, while it worked brilliantly in the 20th century, might not be the best deal in the 21st.

Whatever voters decide in November, it’s important to remember that dams don’t last forever. If the O’Shaughnessy Dam does need to be replaced, there’s no guarantee that the federal government will allow San Francisco to rebuild, or that the city could afford to do so. This might not be the right year for San Francisco to give up the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, but that year may come sooner than the city would like. Wouldn’t it be smart to begin preparing for that now?